A cancer diagnosis is often the beginning of a confounding and harrowing journey for patients. Unable to work, many will drain bank accounts trying to navigate the winding road of treatment — clinging to shreds of normal life.
Which makes the efforts of the Danville based non-profit Lazarex Cancer Foundation that more compelling. The company, which is marking a decade of work, connects cancer patients with clinical trials taking place throughout the world. It also helps defray the steep travel costs that prevent many from undertaking potentially life-saving treatments.
“So clinical trials give patients the opportunity to take advantage of the latest and greatest developments in cancer treatments,” said Lazarex founder Dana Dornsife.
Before founding Lazarex, Dornsife — a former interior designer — watched her brother-in-law Mike Miller battle for his life. After Miller’s diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2003 Dornsife weighed his sobering odds; some 35,000 people a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and every year 35,000 people die from it.
“We weren’t going to get different results if we did the same thing that everyone else had been doing,” Dornsife concluded.
So as Miller began standard chemotherapy, Dornsife spent five weeks combing clinical trials looking for something that might help Miller. Her search lead her to a promising trial in the Philippines. Family helped Mike and his wife Erin Miller foot the enormous travel bills. The treatment was gentler than chemotherapy and it ultimately extended his life from a projected five months to 19 months.
“Which may not sound like a success story to many,” said his widow Erin Miller. “He was able to coach my daughter’s t-ball team. He got to do Scouts with the boys and just had time to create some really good memories with them before he finally passed away.”
Bolstered by the experience, Dornsife began helping other patients navigate through the myriad of clinical trials. She said standard cancer treatments of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery have not advanced drastically since President Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer in the 60s. So therapies developed in clinical trials represent the cutting edge of treatment. But as Dornsife began to help patients find trials, the exorbitant costs of traveling to them represented a brick wall for many.
“I just thought that is so morally and fundamentally wrong,” Dornsife said. “Someday somebody ought to do something about that.”
That somebody turned out to be Dornsife, who had closed her interior design business and began running Lazarex. She later brought on her two sisters, Miller and Karen Ambrogi, making the organization a family affair. Lazarex has now helped nearly 3,000 people find their way to trials — while helping foot the travel expenses for many patients. The case load has exploded exponentially in the last decade — the company has already helped 700 people so far this year — the number of cases it covered during all of last year.
“By helping somebody,” Ambrogi said, “you’re giving hope to a system that is pretty much hopeless.”
Lynette Trevillion could tell something was wrong with her daughter Crystalyn. The normally active Palo Alto teenager who had been absorbed in cheerleading and sports was suddenly lethargic and run down. The eventual medical explanation was harrowing — a diagnosis of Leukemia.
“When they told us about it,” Trevillion recalled, “we just went into a whole other world I didn’t realize existed.”
That new world included rounds and rounds of chemotherapy. Crystalyn’s hair fell out. High school fell to the wayside. The treatments temporarily cleansed her of the cancer — but she relapsed. A doctor suggested she take part in a clinical trial in Philadelphia but Lynette had quit working to take care of her daughter and the potential costs made Philadelphia as realistic as a trip to Mars.
“I wasn’t able to afford it at this time,” Lynette said. “Oh my God, Philadelphia!”
Lazarex stepped in to help pay the travel costs during what turned out to be a four-month stay in Philadelphia. Crystalyn has now been in remission one year and is getting ready to start college.
“They helped us with the flights getting to and from Philly,” Crystalyn said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been to go at all.”
Ambrogia said the financial help is a crucial aspect of the company’s mission, which relies on grants, donations and corporate sponsors to fund its efforts.
“Actually fifty percent or more of clinical trials fail,” Ambrogi said. “Not because the drugs don’t work or the treatments don’t work but because they never enroll enough patients to fulfill the trial.”
On a recent day the three sisters sat around a conference room table planning the organization’s annual fundraiser. At the edge of the table sat a family photo of Mike and Erin Miller along with their three children. Erin said the treatment that extended Mike’s life allowed his daughter who was 3 years old at the time of his diagnosis, enough time to forge memories of her father. The portrait represented a cornerstone of a company that had now helped so many.
“For me,” Miller said, “it’s such a huge tribute to my husband.”